2 May 2008
By Suzannah Taw
Anyone who reads the Five, Ten and Fifteen Years Ago column on our letters pages may have noticed that many themes seem to recur through our paper.
Teenage stabbings, problems on regenerated estates, children not getting their choice of schools, and political intrigue.
But this roundabout of news does not pull from such a short period of history. In fact, you can look back over a hundred years and find that all the issues we worry about today in Southwark in fact were being worried about then too!
And just as Southwark now has its own locally produced, independently owned newspaper, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was the Southwark Recorder, a small weekly peper that reported on local crimes, politics and scandals.
The Recorder was a popular paper because it was a personal read, specific to the area and loyal to the ordinary local people. Reading it today, in Borough’s Local Studies Library, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the past of Southwark.
Their powerful slogan was written underneath the title of the paper, which itself changed many times, for the length of the paper's history. It claimed to reject religious or social bias: "Neutral in politics. Undenominational."
In practice, they were not conservative, but they were political. An editor who worked at the paper from 1876 to 1911, Joseph Watson, was a member of the Southwark Liberal Association, which at the time was very radical. He was interested in the social problems of the time and took a part in the efforts to win back the constituency to liberalism.
During Watson's years there were regular articles and campaigns about issues that affected the local schools, railways, roads and houses as well as scandal. Some of the news stories in 1900 could have been written today: 'Stabbing at Dockhead', described how 23-year-old John Coleman got into a fight with Arthur Piket in a Bermondsey pub after bumping into his wife, and ended up stabbing him.
The appearance of the papers were different to today. In the early 1900s the front covers were full of adverts rather than headlines or articles. Some of the companies advertised on the front page from 1916 still exist today, including Beecham's and famous funeral directors Albin, which was then 'the oldest firm in Bermondsey.'
Many of the universal stories about crime, accidents and other local problems reflect issues covered today but the papers were also full of references to the Great War. In the edition on January 28, 1916 a soldier's death was written about, accompanied by the letter sent to his mother, headed with: 'Fort Road Territorial Killed in Action.' The 26-year-old soldier had signed up before war was declared, and the letter was full of praise for his bravery.
Another story on the same page describes a 'domestic' entitled 'Objected to a Sheep's Head.' It was written as follows: 'Alfred Knowles, 53, a deal porter, of Kennington Road was charged with assaulting his wife Jessie. The parties quarrelled on Sunday afternoon because the dinner only consisted of a sheep's head - a dinner, the prisoner said, which was not suitable for any man.' The wife accused her husband of then striking her arm with a poker, but he said he used his fist to knock the basin she was trying to throw at him.
The paper proved to be as important to locals as ever during the war shown by a soldier's letter from the trenches, headed with: 'the "Recorder" in the Trenches.' Addressed to the editor, it thanks him for sending the paper out to the soldiers in France and says he and his 'Bermondsey chums' especially like to look at the Roll of Honour. This was a list of soldiers with the names of the roads they lived on and a key showing those who have been killed in action, were wounded, taken prisoner or missing.
The media is fixated with teenage crimes and often covers stories in papers or TV, yet this has been an age-old problem. From the beginning of 1916 there are news stories about the increase in juvenile crimes such as stealing bicycles and begging. In the article entitled: 'War and Bermondsey children. Mr Cecil Chapman's speech' A magistrate who sent 140 children from Bermondsey in six months to industrial schools, thought the rise in crime was connected with the war.
The article reads: "The magistrate of Tower Bridge police court had some interesting things to say on the increase in juvenile crimes which has been noted in some districts since the war. He thought an explanation might be found in the absence of fathers, which tended to make mothers less keen in keeping the children in order, the darkness of the streets, and the spirit of adventure fostered by war."
The magistrate's proposals echoed what authorities say now, as he recommended that schools should do more to prevent bad behaviour and develop character to counteract the influence of a bad home.
Light relief was offered by creative writing including poems, a Joke column and sports coverage. Written in a different time, comedy lasts, as he following joke shows:
'Young man (from the country): "I say! Is this the way to the cemetery!" Town Boy. "Yes you just keep standing on them electric tram-lines, and you'll be there soon enough."'
The weekly column 'The police News' gave updates on court cases and crimes, has stories like those in our In the Dock section. One example was 'a warning to parents' which described a couple who a court ruled were to be sent to prison for two months each for neglecting their children, and allowing them to become 'verminous'.
Ever feel like history repeats itself?
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